A local experience in rural Kyrgyzstan
Story and photos by: Steve Smith
Time stops. No. It stopped a long time ago here. As if clocks simply had no more reason to tick.
Years ago, while living in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, I tried to describe to a friend there how the rate of development in the modern world was so exponential that the rate of Kyrgyzstan’s development was effectively in recession in comparison. After Soviet Russia collapsed, the outer USSR states were left on their own to sink or swim, and here I was in little Kyrgyzstan, watching it tread water as the rest of the world swam away with the speed of Michael Phelps doing the butterfly. The city government buildings clearly showed a lack of maintenance, what you’d expect after the roughly 20-odd years following the fall of the Soviet Union. Paint fell off the buildings, sidewalks were bent out of shape by the cold winters, and the public transportation stopped more than it ran; still, there was an appeal that I could not explain.
Getting to know the Kyrgyz people and their fellow countrymen, the ethnic Russians, is basically learning two completely separate cultures simultaneously. Though both cultures now call Kyrgyzstan home, the Kyrgyz people were there much longer. They carry with them not only pride in their country but also the feeling of ownership of the land. The ethnic Russians, however, are a displaced people, and it shows in every interaction. Two kilometers away from the capital city Bishkek and you’ll need to know how to speak Kyrgyz, not Russian, to communicate without being treated like a foreigner. On this trip, I planned to spend most of my time away from the city and effectively visit 70 or 80 years in the past; to live in a Kyrgyz village is to live the way that our great-grandparents may have lived. In a way, that’s as beautiful, authentic, and simple as the day is long.
Dawn breaks and the sound of the family cow awakens us.
Near the small village of Tokmok, Mairam, the young wife of the youngest son, milks the cow just outside my bedroom window. Later, her tasks will include preparing an outdoor fire and brewing tea, laying out bread and homemade jam for the family’s breakfast, and butchering and processing the meat from the sheep that was slain the day before. The family members slowly emerge from their house and wash their faces outside with water carried from the neighborhood well earlier in the week. Mairam’s child, Taalai-bek, waits patiently for her to call the family to breakfast and watches from the “summer kitchen,” which is an outbuilding meant to keep the heat of daily cooking away from the primary living space.
Immediately after breakfast, the daughter-in-law begins preparing lunch and dinner – there’s never time to relax. Again tending a fire outdoors, meals are cooked in nearly a campfire style – open flame with a pot resting on a grate above. It’s been this way for the nomad people for a thousand years, and a thousand more before that. Food is typically simple. Freshly killed sheep, boiled with a few seasonings, and sides of noodles and vegetables. The family eats communally, and for some dishes, it’s imperative to eat with your hands, in honor and remembrance of the brave nomadic ancestors long ago. Wash it down with kumis, a strongly flavored, partially fermented horse milk, and you’ve had the makings of a high calorie meal meant to be eaten along the great Silk Road that will get you through the day without another bite.
The Coldest of Cold
In the high-altitude lands of At-Bashi, near the border with China, lies a land of dreams, even for the Kyrgyz. Spoken of in reverent tones, this mountainous area is known as the most beautiful, majestic, and most bitterly cold part of Kyrgyzstan. Living a true nomad lifestyle, they are the ne plus ultra of the Kyrgyz. Here on the Djailoo (a high-altitude valley between mountains), they brave the freezing wind year-round, living in yurts just as their forefathers did. Burning a mix of coal and dried sheep dung, the ex-Soviet stoves in the yurts provide a surprising amount of heat. Children play with the sheep when the weather is calm, and are always employed to assist in household chores. The face of every Kyrgyz here shows the daily battle waged with sun and wind, and they are all the prouder for it. Living here in the Djailoo is the essence of human living. No luxuries; just a pure agricultural livelihood.
Husbandry is Life
Not a waking moment goes by in the village without work being done caring for farm animals. In every home, in every village, at any daylight hour, families cut, bale, store, and distribute grass for their cows and sheep, tend to their wounds with home remedy medicines, select mating pairs from the herd, help them give birth – the list goes on. During the summer, the families near Issyk-kul give their herds over to nearby shepherds. These men spend their entire summers on horseback caring for up to 500 sheep in the high mountains where the grass grows sweet and green. In payment, they receive a percentage share of the herd. He constantly watches the sheep for their safety, wary that a wolf pack could easily sneak into his camp and steal away with several sheep while he sleeps in his small ramshackle tent. Perhaps the happiest man in the world, he oversees his sheep while taking in the cool, clean air high in the mountains, near the snow-capped Tien Shan. He whispers, “Gyel,” which is Kyrgyz for “Come” and smiles, knowing your 9-5 desk job holds not a candle to the glory of his office.
Not a waking moment goes by in the village without work being done caring for farm animals.
Down the road, men load enormous bales of hay by hand into a desperately aging ZIL truck. The truck, likely a relic from the 1950’s, knows these fields and mountains as well as the young men who live here. All across the land, young men hop in and out of these trucks, lifting the bales on 10- or 15-foot-long pitchforks as the trucks slowly amble along. Time is marked by the rising and falling of the sun, and the hunger in their bellies at lunchtime. This job ends only when all the grass is cut and stored, and then it will be time for winter, and to bring the herds into the lowlands for greater warmth.
With the importance placed on animals in this Central Asian lifestyle, needless to say a serious injury to an animal is likewise an injury to the family as well. As night falls on a village near Tokmok, the family settles into the home after a large family gathering and watches the Nomad Games occurring near Cholpon-Ata on a small TV. The oldest daughter labors into the night, preparing bread for the next morning and checking on the livestock. Suddenly, she rushes into the house screaming for help. Barely able to get the right words out, she finally explains that the family cow has swallowed a whole pear from the orchard and is choking. The only men in the house, the young son of 25 and his foreign brother-in-law, rush out to help. Working quickly, they try to dislodge the pear with a long stick, trying to gently coax the pear out of the cow’s esophagus. Though the men are as gentle as can be, the cow has moments of panic and nearly breaks one of the men’s legs in a jolt of fear. Finally, the family patriarch arrives from the neighbor’s home and the three men work together to help save the cow. Now very concerned, another neighbor is called who has veterinary experience. He tries to clear the pear by reaching deep into the cow’s throat, but is unsuccessful. As the men look on, trying to think of another way to save the cow, she stumbles to her knees, half unconscious. The oldest man grabs a sharp blade and, with a few words of prayer, puts the cow out of her misery in the dark light of a single glowing light bulb. Now the family has an entirely different dilemma. Weighing around 600 kilograms, the cow needs to be butchered and sold. The young daughter-in-law bursts into tears. Not only is the loss tragic on its own, she knows this was the family’s only source of milk for the family and the cow’s young calf. The men settle in for a long night’s worth of work. Taking great care to not cut the skin, or cause any damage to the meat, they slowly butcher their family cow, heartbroken. Night temperatures are cool, and allow for overnight storage in open air, but the next day, the carcass is taken into the city for sale, at 35 cents a pound, adding insult to injury.
Barely able to get the right words out, she finally explains that the family cow has swallowed a whole pear from the orchard and is choking.
Life on the Djailoo and in the Kyrgyz village is inexorably tied to the land, to agriculture, to the earth. Some would consider this living to be poverty, but these people have all that they want, and all they need. They have a life that is rich without money, and the knowledge that they are rich is evident on every face and in every conversation. Life with such purity of purpose and closeness with the natural surroundings makes your heart ache.Your desk seems so far away, and so unnecessary at times like this. It makes you want to throw your laptop in the trash, follow the shepherd’s whispered call of “Gyel,” and leave it all behind.